Embracing the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun

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Posted: 
August 19, 2019
Written by: Christopher Tate

Almost nothing about being transgender has been easy for me. Luckily, I’m English-speaking, which means there’s a very simple way to use the pronouns that work best for me. The singular use of “they” and its other grammatical forms (“them”/“theirs”) is the most comfortable pronoun usage for me. I’m a genderqueer, transgender person whose gender presentation is more masculine-of-centre.

What does all of that mean?

Respect and inclusion

It means I’m a human being just like you, who deserves the same amount of respect as my other colleagues. It also means that I don’t feel comfortable being referred to as “male” or “female”; and while I will accept masculine pronouns, using neutral pronouns when speaking of me is the best way to not exclude me.

We have an incredible capacity and ability to continually grow the English language, adapting and evolving as our society does. We have many opportunities to grow ourselves, interpersonally, at work and in our wider social circles, by being self-aware and self-educating and by moving with the times, as it were.

Evolution of singular “they”

The use of singular “they” has been around for centuries, from William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens. More recently, singular “they” has become normalized via the protections that have been put in place for genderqueer and gender non-conforming (or non-binary) individuals. This is certainly in part thanks to Canada’s Bill C-16. Having basic human rights protections against discrimination towards transgender persons is a great step forward for Canada.

As editor Gael Spivak also points out in her blog post, singular “they” has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s here to stay. I’ve had many people ask me what the point is, why I make things harder for myself, why I can’t just “pick one” (meaning “he” or “she”), or inquire about the importance of pronouns and their proper usage.

Personal pronouns are linked to identity

Pronouns are important as they teach people how to properly refer to the person they’re speaking about. They show people the best way to respect me. They’re important as a part of my identity and an expression of who I am. I know I’m genderqueer as surely as a cisgender person knows they’re not transgender! I don’t use singular “they” in order to make things harder for others, to be trendy, or to push any kind of agenda. I use it because it makes me feel like myself. It’s the right and most comfortable fit for me.

Perhaps you don’t feel as attached to your pronouns, but perhaps you’ve never had to assert them as valid. Maybe you haven’t had to assert your personal pronouns as a part of your identity while others have purposefully misused these words to attack you … while others have decided for you that, on the basis of their perception of who you are, you aren’t who you say you are.

Learning to use neutral pronouns

One of the problems I’ve encountered in the workplace is how to properly use “they” as a singular pronoun. I don’t demand that everyone in my workplace use singular “they” for me, as I’m also comfortable being referred to in the masculine. However, I do normalize singular “they” when speaking about clients or other colleagues, depending on the context. I do tell people that I use “they” pronouns, I wear a “they/them” pronoun pin with my identification card, and I have produced educational materials on neutral pronouns and how to use them. So, how exactly do you use them? Here are a few examples with some fun facts about myself:

  • Christopher is not in today; they went to Iceland on vacation.
  • They have a cat named Agent S.
  • They are always finding ways to help educate others about LGBTQ2+ issues.

Using singular “they” pronouns, or any of the neopronouns, takes practice and patience. Patience for yourself as you retrain your brain, and patience from the person whose pronouns you’re attempting not to botch. “Practice makes perfect” holds true for the singular use of “they” pronouns. I invite you to practise: you can start by thinking of all the instances where you already automatically use “they” in the singular. For example, if you receive a phone call but the caller hangs up, you may be likely to say, “I don’t know, they hung up” when someone asks you who called.

What other instances can you think of where you have already begun to normalize the use of “they” as a singular pronoun?

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Christopher Tate

Christopher is a self-identified queer transgender person who uses both neutral (they/them) and masculine (he/him) pronouns. He works as a Service Canada Benefit Officer and chairs the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) Local 00648’s LGBTQ2+ Committee. They are also a Positive Space Facilitator with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and a member of the ESDC Pride Network. Christopher loves that the English language offers so many opportunities for him to express himself and his genderqueer identity, because it makes them feel respected, included and accepted.

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Is it available in both official languages?

This blog post isn’t available in French, since the singular “they” is specific to the English language. However, we encourage you to read Laurent Aussant’s post “Respecter la non-binarité de genre en français” (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/fr/blogue-blog/respecter-la-no...), which offers some strategies for using gender-neutral language in French.

Love this article!

The part where you say "Perhaps you don’t feel as attached to your pronouns, but perhaps you’ve never had to assert them as valid" reminded me of a point from my childhood. It is nothing compared to what you most likely went through (I have a decent understanding even though I am Cis--my son is transgender), but it felt like a very small link. When I was probably 6, I had very short hair and was misgendered quite a few times. I was very bothered by this and became very anxious about what people thought about me. I started wanting to wear dresses all the time to make my gender clear to people. I had never questioned my gender identity and I can only imagine how horrible this situation could feel to a child who was questioning their gender identity at the time. Again I realize that this does in no way compare, but it is an incident from my life that "clicked" when I read your article. Maybe there are other Cisgender people out there with similar experiences that can help them understand these struggles in a small way.

I already feel it, but reading those sentences in this article made me realize even more how upsetting it is to have someone use the wrong pronouns.
I will hug my boy even tighter because of this realization.

Thank you for sharing.

Thank you, Nichole, for reading and for sharing as well. These kinds of connections are what I hope to foster while educating and advocating for trans and non-binary people! If there is something in my sharing that sparks a kernel or connection with cisgender people in particular, I am happy to keep on sharing.

Great article!! :)

Wonderful article, Christopher!! Thank you for all of the incredible work you do!

Thank you for the post. I happen to be doing some research on inclusive language issues, and I was wondering whether it is common to use both masculine or feminine pronouns and singular "they" pronoun in the same text, as you did in your biography. You even use both in a single sentence in the final sentence of your bio. That kind of usage can be confusing for readers. How did you decide which pronouns to use? Your thoughts would be appreciated!

Desmond, thanks for reading! It is most definitely uncommon to use multiple pronouns in a sentence. I did it intentionally, not to confuse people, but to pair with the article and as a bit of the thinking activity to get people’s brains firing on how to start incorporating singular "they" into everyday language. Perhaps not the most traditional way to educate, but it got you thinking, right? That’s the whole point!

Indeed! Thank you again!

Thanks for writing and sharing this Christopher. We all deserve respect and love.
I will be sharing your blog for sure.
Keep up the great work.

Thanks, Kevin! For all your support, always.

Thank you, Christopher Tate, for educating us on they/them pronouns. Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just as using a person’s name can be a way to respect them. Just as it can be offensive or even harassing to make up a nickname for someone and call them that nickname against their will, it can be offensive or harassing to guess at someone’s pronouns and refer to them using those pronouns if that is not how that person wants to be known.

This post was really educational on the ways to use gender neutral pronouns!
I'm going to try to challenge my brain to do better at using neutral pronouns for more people.
Thanks!

This is a very gentle, respectful explanation of the importance of using "they." The part that stood out the most to me was this: " I don’t use singular 'they' in order to make things harder for others, to be trendy, or to push any kind of agenda. I use it because it makes me feel like myself. It’s the right and most comfortable fit for me." Many of us need this wake up call of being reminded that the proper use of pronouns truly matters to the other person. Whether I agree, disagree, think it's trendy or whatever, is of no importance. What is important is to strive to be respectful to every individual one encounters. Thank you for this excellent educational and thoughtful piece.

This is an excellent post. Well done. I've added it to my list of articles and blog posts on the singular they. https://goo.gl/M9zVLt

This is a great article, Christopher! Thank you for sharing with everyone.

Excellent work, Christopher!
I love your writing/education style! I also really like the way you framed the need for the use of "they" when you said, "I use it because it makes me feel like myself. It’s the right and most comfortable fit for me"! That is what counts!
Thank you for this post.

First of all, thank you for this enlightening article. I would appreciate a clarification, if you don't mind. When using the pronoun "they" in the singular form, is it recommended to conjugate the verb in the plural or the singular, so as to help with clarification of the pronoun being used to designate one individual or a group of individuals?

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